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Liveblogging WAM-NYC: Pitching and Getting Published

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

March 26th, 2011

At WAM (Women, Action and Media) NYC, the first panel is focused on how bloggers and journalists can pitch media and get published.

Panelists include:
Moderator: Raw Story’s Megan Carpentier (formerly Talking Points Memo)
Newsweek’s Jessica Bennett (also Daily Beast)
Democracy Now!’s Renee Feltz
Freelancer Kathryn Joyce

Note: I am liveblogging this as a straight transcription. Though I’m trying to go as close to word-for-word as possible, but there will be things I’ll miss, and times when I’ll get the gist of panelists’ comments, but won’t be verbatim.

Kathryn Joyce: Pitching 101
Lay out your idea right away, as well as who you are the right person to cover it.
Anecdotes you’ll use, research and reporting you’re bringing in.
If you’re writing about obscure topic, don’t assume editors are following same subject or discussions; you need to start with the basics; explain what the story is, who you’re covering, where they’re situated in the national conversation.
What are you bringing to an evolving story
Be succinct: pitched should be no longer than a page (unless it’s a long investigative piece)

(Jessica Bennett: I don’t read past the first three sentences; Megan: Three to five sentences, I should know exactly what your story is offering.)

Megan: A lot of time what I see in freelance pitches: “The Washington Post wrote this story!” I say great, but what are YOU going to do on this story, what’s new? Don’t just reblog something another outlet has covered.

Kathryn: What’s the news peg? Why is it timely? Important?
Enterprising reporters will pitch months in advance for timeliness (women’s history/black history month; anniversaries; etc.)
Above all, why do you have a new angle on a well-covered story?
Make clear why you are the right person: your background, expertise, blog experience is worth highlighting but within your pitch make clear you have access to the sources you are interviewing, you have a plan for how you’ll do the reporting. If you’re pitching a humor piece, the pitch should be funny. If you’re pitching a biting op-ed, demonstrate that you have the chops to do that.
Demonstrate that you read & are familiar with the publication you are pitching.

Jessica Bennett: [pitching inside an organization/publication] Pitch to targeted editors.
Be direct — don’t self-defeat in your language. Make clear that you’re an authority. Don’t undersell yourself. Be strong, confident, direct; important for women in paerticular.
Think beyond print. Everyone wants to be a New Yorker feature writer but that’s not the landscape now. You have to pitch multimedia, listicles, galleries. You can pitch much beyond a feature.
Clicks do matter, that’s a reality we have to think about. So we can’t pitch stories about female genital mutilation every single time; find a way to pitch women’s issues stories in a mainstream outlet that that audience can hear it.

Renee Feltz:
Never send a generic pitch to several outlets at once.
Magazines/outlets have instructions on how to pitch on their websites. Follow those instructions, if they have them.
Keep it short; elaborate if editor follows up.
Don’t over-promise what you can’t deliver.
Suggest that you’ve read the material the outlet reports on.
Have a resume website for your clips, your expertise.
Editors are people too — be patient while editor reads your pitch. And follow-up once or twice — politely — to make sure they got the pitch (but don’t bug them).
When you follow up, make it about the story — not about your own personal issues.

Megan: Don’t get hung up on magazines. Or cover stories. Or the 2,000 word pieces. There are other ways to get published. Multimedia, video, books, etc.

Renee: We don’t have to think about anything separate from print. Pitching a print story, can you include a video or audio interviews? Photo slideshow? Audio photo slideshow? This is a way to make your pitch stand out from other pitches. Don’t just do multimedia to stand out, though — make it make sense. What stands out visually, what’s a compelling source I want to draw out more. How does this video/audio complement the story? You can make an interactive graphic. Doesn’t mean you have to teach yourself coding, perhaps you provide source material and they can code it on their end. If you’re dealing with a website, know their usual work — if htey rarely if ever do video, don’t pitch video. Original source material may be sexy to post as additional material to go deeper on a story. Buzzword editors like: interactive.

Consider hybrid outlets, like the PBS outlet “Need to Know.” They have a lot of content that they don’t use on the actual show each week. Some of the extra material goes on the website.

Another thing editors are looking for w/multimedia: it increases traffic. For you: it helps your piece get picked up in the echo chamber. I did a piece about manipulated info keeping mentally retarded prisoners on death row; I got interviews and images. I made a video & an interactive graphic where you can learn more about these guys. I was able to get this piece picked up by a lot of TV outlets because I had a clip to play.

Resources that you might be able to put together as a freelance multimedia reporter: for audio, zoom reporter, iphone apps, etc. For camera, it’s pricey but I use a Canon 70, shoots video; good investment. I use Final Cut Express to edit — a lot cheaper, and you can teach yourself to edit. For audio editing — I use free program, Audacity.

It’s a little hard to pitch multimedia on its own. Part of the reason is that outlets have their own multimedia people. I approach it as a package: a story with various elements: print, video, audio, charts, etc. — makes it easier for an editor to be enticed.

Jessica: Packages — outlets love this. For example, I did a package on the Pheobe Prince bullying story. There was the DA, the kids charged with felony crimes, the principle who allegedly aided, more — I was always thinking visually. I thought we could do an interactive graphic, showing the web of connections between all the kids. I worked with the graphics dept and the animation department. Thinking visually is something we all need to do in this new media age. And knowing Final Cut Pro is a HUGE thing. Multimedia does help to sell the idea.
In traditional outlets, editors may not be familiar with what is possible online, you can expand their world if you explain it and put it into your pitch. it’s all about collaboration — if you know a cameraperson who can go out with you, a video editor who can work on the piece…

Kathryn Joyce: Nook project came out of reporting. If you have your subspeciality as a writer, if you’re focusing intensely on one subject for months or years, that’s a place where a book can grow out of it. A magazine article will turn into a book. A story I did for The Nation about adoption led to my current book project. I had far too many sources and was deeply moved… but you need to care very deeply about your subject enough to spend three years on it, because it will consume your life. We can’t talk today about agents and writing book proposals, but book publishers want to know what your platform is. What is the community you are writing for, who is your built-in audience, recognized expertise and cache, who will be buying your book before it is even written.

Jessica: And branding! I didn’t learn about branding or becoming a personal brand in journalism school. I was told to write in newspaper style, objectivity, etc. Today it’s the opposite. You have to be an expert. We don’t value this objective reporting we once did (side note: it’s impossible to be objective). Today we really need to be in “shameless self-promotion” mode. Get over the resistance to that. You have to be an authority on something. You have to have an opinion, and expertise.

Megan: A big question as women, feminists, progressives: a big question to ask is where your boundaries are; I’ve written everywhere from Ms. mag to TV recaps to hard news, I famously don’t have a lot of boundaries, whether writing for bills or etc. Where are you comfortable publishing. How much you’re comfortable getting paid before you sell something. How do you negotiate this question?

Jessica: It’s about what you’re comfortable with. Some of us aren’t comfy with standing in a celebrity line… if you want to do reporting that really means something, you have to often have second jobs that fund the meaningful reporting. Are you willing to write for free? If you’re just starting out any way to get your name out there is useful. At the same time, you have to ask. Women are four times less likely to negotiate a raise. Societal influences. But this is something you have to address.

Kathryn: If you’re going to write for free, if so, for how long before you demand to be paid? Might mean having a harder time having a place to publish you. Journalism world is fairly grim right now. Friend doing a survey through the Knight Foundation about how journalists are making a living, and it’s really grim now. Anxiety. That’s reflected among some of us on this panel. Sometimes you start out writing for free, but I have a much harder time accepting the idea of writing for free now — writers are not being paid for their work, supports that system.

Renee: I do think about what’s in the story for me if I’m writing for free? A local paper here, The Indypendent, when I was just starting out in JSchool, their editors are more adept at dealing with social issues and political stories. They’re a pleasure to work with. I was able to get a couple of cover stories. I wrote them for free but they were well-edited, important stories on cover — great clips when I was just starting out. Sometimes you do have to work other jobs, to keep your dream writing jobs alive. I made a personal commitment to continuing to do investigative reporting on the side, even though I’m now a producer at Democracy Now!

Megan: One thing I tell young writers, I never wrote for free. I did one piece on spec that got me my first column. On HuffPo, you have a clip? If it’s not featured on the front page, it doesn’t get read. It’s really important to think about whether the story is worth it. When you write for free you help play into a class system that makes it required for other lower income people to not be able to take these jobs. We end up with trust fund babies in journalism because lower income people can’t afford to work in journalism… economic coverage and coverage of unemployment reflects that lack of perspective.

Know the life you’re planning to live. [And here, Megan told a story about standing on a celebrity rope line that is hysterical, and sad, and there’s no way I could do justice to it…]

Renee: I live in a one bedroom apartment with three people and two cats. You have to make sacrifices to do this kind of work. Part of the reason I went to a journ school that offered me a lot of assistance, the reason you go to journ school is for the connections. A lot of the teachers don’t know jack about mulitmedia, etc. But saddle up to the scholarship department, and the funders, etc. If you’re going to choose a freelance career, you have to go out and pitch constantly, selling your brand, do the outreach. Resources you should consider: internships are worth pursuing. Some do pay in NY. It’s a good way to meet people. Half of freelancing is all about the connections, if you know the editor they’re more likely to take your pitch. If you intern at Newsweek you can get paid for freelance work after that. I doggedly pursued an internship at the investigative reporting area at the NYTimes. I interned there for about six months. Like anyone would, I worked as hard as I could. They offered me freelance work later. (Though a lot of newspapers are downsizing, so newspaper internships aren’t always great places anymore.) Other resources: Pursue fellowships. The Nation Investigative Fund. The Soros Justice Media Fellowship, they’re open to various types of freelance work, my project lives at DeportationNation.org. Fellowships allow us to do better quality work. The Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship. One quick places to look is JournalismJobs.com - they list fellowships. In addition to funding boost, it also looks good on your resume - people have faith in your if you’ve gotten fellowships; editors may be more receptive after. They’re good for funding, but they’re not giving you guarantees for publication of that work.

Question from audience: How to make your pitch succinct?

Megan: If I’m looking at 750 word assignment, then I don’t want a 1,000 word pitch. I need that lede graph. I should have a pretty good idea of what the rest of your story is going to be.

Jessica: Story first, you second.

Kathryn: Pay attention to the publication. If you’re pitching to a lengthier publication, possibly longer, but sometimes a blog, one or two sentences.

Jessica: Don’t be afraid to be your own PR person.

Apps for phone/audio: Monle, records audio in good quality, but it’s an editor as well. It’s a multitrack editor. I can pull out the best cut and FTP it to an editor. Good investment.

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